Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
By John LaForge
A high-level radioactive waste “parking lot” proposed for West Texas poses both terrible and unnecessary risks for people throughout the country—Texas in particular—and should not be built, according to a coalition of public interest groups that declared its opposition to the plan Feb. 9.
The proposal was announced February 6 by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which currently operates a low-level radioactive dump at its 14,000 acre site in Andrews County, Texas, near the New Mexico border. WCS, in partnership with the French nuclear giant AREVA, plans to submit its application for accepting high-level radioactive waste to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) next year.
About 70,000 tons of such high-level waste fuel is now stored at about 70 reactor sites around the country. The waste is some of most long-lived, deadly and dangerous material known to science, radioactive for over half-a-million years. “High-level” waste specifically refers to fuel rods from the nuclear power industry and plutonium-contaminated military waste; “low-level” is actually a broad term that encompasses the rest of the radioactive waste spectrum.
If federal agencies approve its application, the private partnership could begin accepting spent fuel from the US’s operating nuclear reactors by 2020.
“It was irresponsible even to generate high-level nuclear waste without a plan for how to dispose of it,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, in a press release. “It would be doubly so to ship it across the country, with no serious plan to protect it in transit or in its new temporary destination. Hiding the problem of high-level nuclear waste in West Texas doesn’t make it go away, it makes it worse.”
Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said, “Moving nuclear waste to a supposedly temporary consolidated storage place gives the delusion of ‘a solution’ when in fact it will at least double the risks and create a de facto permanent dump near one of the largest aquifers in the country.”
D’Arrigo called the plan part of an elaborate, unnecessary shell game. “WCS is really volunteering to make the US nuclear problem worse by putting the deadliest radioactive wastes from nuclear power on the same highways, railways and waterways we all use every day,” she said. The government said 20 years ago that the waste could safely be kept at reactor sites for 100 years.
“This plan is all risk and no reward for the state of Texas,” said Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “It poses transportation and accident risks around the country. We don’t need Fukushima Freeways,” he said.
Public Citizen outlined five key objections to the plan, most of which were raised by Texas’s own Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) last year:
- Waste shipments would be targets for sabotage or blackmail by terrorists. TCEQ noted that the waste is more vulnerable to accidents or attacks while in transit than if left it where it is, because security is lighter then and fewer radiation shields would be available. Shipments from reactors around the country—passing through dozens of population centers—could last over 24 years. The Energy Department estimates that there would be about 10,700 shipments if done by rail; about 53,000 shipments (others say 100,000) if done by truck.
- WCS would have only limited liability, while the public would be put at risk from transport accidents, leaks and terrorism.
- So-called “short-term” storage may become permanent—an unearned trophy for the nuclear industry. The complex scientific analysis required for any permanent waste site would take about ten years and has not been done.
- The WCS site is too close to the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to eight states.
“The federal government has made a mess of nuclear waste policy,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “The highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors should be stored on-site, in hardened configurations while Washington sorts it out. Putting the deadliest nuclear waste on the roads needlessly increases risks.”
The only plausible rationale for moving high-level waste away from reactor sites has come from those warning about tsunami risks on the West Coast, and from environmental justice advocates who note that radioactive waste is often placed—as with Xcel’s Prairie Island reactors in Minnesota—near Native American communities.
Rose Gardner lives about five miles from the WCS site. “Here they go again, moving forward their dangerous ambitions,” she said. “These people at WCS haven’t even given the most affected community, Eunice, New Mexico, a chance to get used to their existing ‘low-level’ radioactive waste dump, and now they’re trying to cram a high-level nuclear waste storage site into an area next to us. These are selfish and greedy people. Andrews County may profit, but not Eunice, which will bear great risks.”
Former Texas State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth said, “The site isn’t even dry—a minimum safety prerequisite for safe storage or disposal of radioactive waste. Recently, 22 percent of test wells at the existing low-level radioactive waste site had water present. … WCS admits the Ogallala Aquifer is nearby. What would happen if radioactive waste contaminated water that lies beneath eight states?”
This is just one of many urgent questions to be answered before deciding what to do with radioactive waste.